Wednesday, May 18, 2011

I "Feel" Fat Part 2: When Weight Gain IS Being Healthy, But You Still Hate It

Last time, I talked a little about the idea that fat is not really a feeling. What I meant by that is: Fat is not an emotional state. It's not like being sad or angry or disappointed. This is an important distinction, especially if you have an eating disorder, because in my experience, people with ED's tend to use "fat" as a catch all for every negative feeling we have about ourselves that we either can't or won't articulate. When I say "I feel fat" what I mean is "I feel like a worthless, pointless, disgusting, abhorrent, wreck." It goes a lot deeper than just the body.

Now, can you physically "feel fat"? I don't know. I think you can feel full, heavy, or inactive. I think you can feel unhealthy. But those can be true whether you'd actually be described physically as fat or not. I think it's probably best to remember that fat is just a description of a body type. What you feel, even physically, has more accurate terms that could be used.

When people say "I feel fat", it's pretty much as loaded down with negative associations as you can get. No one says they feel fat to stand in for feeling good, happy, productive, or healthy. It's become a kind of short hand for things that are culturally bad, because we certainly don't view fat as positive as a society. They've done studies. The kinds of words kids associate with a picture of a fat person, for instance, include anything from "mean" to "stupid". Things that have absolutely nothing to do with size and are extremely negative. So I don't think it's particularly far out to suggest, even when used casually, saying "I feel fat" is rife with problems.

I think about this a lot because, in spite of 2 years of therapy, I still say "I feel fat" fairly automatically as a substitute for whatever is really bothering me. This is because when I get upset I start to "feel" like I take up too much space because I don't believe I have a right to want, need, or feel much of anything. It's part of the body dysmorphia that has stayed while my ED has improved. It's a little like a balloon blowing up. I'll be completely normal and then gradually, as stressors mount, anxiety rises, or complicated issues come up (such as making a mistake, I have big problems with me making mistakes)...I will steadily feel like I have become a cartoonishly towering and overflowing giant. Because of a lot of different things said to me when I was young and formulating my sense of self, I have a deeply held belief that I do not have the right to take up any space. I always want to shrink, to become small and unnoticeable. I believe that's where a lot of my need to starve came from. Being empty made me feel smaller and "lighter" and, technically, I was. Of course, it was never small enough.

These days when I catch myself thinking/saying I "feel" fat, I usually stop myself and have an inner conversation about what I'm actually feeling because I know that there's more going on. I know that sounds touchy-feely, but it's a lot better than continuing to starve myself to death. Sometimes I say it because I do feel physically inactive or dissatisfied...but then there's the consideration of why I feel like that, and why I don't just say that instead. It's much easier for me to focus on something physical than it is to acknowledge that, when it comes to myself, I'm a bully. I will and have said every horrible, terrible, hurtful thing you can think of in my head. For years I have believed the worst about myself, believed it with a kind of terrible, almost terminal, determination. I am worthless. I am nothing. I will always be nothing. I am a failure if I am not thin.

That thought: I am a failure if I am not thin...is really tough. Because the truth is, I've gained quite a bit of weight since going into therapy. Some of it is because I had to look at my diet with a nutritionist and realize that what I thought of as a "healthy"diet was nearly devoid of fat (which you need to live and have a healthy brain, by the way), had stopped being particularly diverse, and was making me sick and tired. Which was also because of how much I was limiting my calories. I wasn't fueling myself nutritionally at all and eating had become so miserable I dreaded it. I had to fill out a form and mark whether I thought a food was "safe" or not. If it wasn't lettuce it was something I didn't view as safe even if I ate it. And if I did eat the non safe foods, I felt so guilty it was suffocating. I also couldn't do things like eat out or around other people. I was terrified that they would think I was disgusting for eating.

Nowadays this is much less of a problem. I'm still a little anxious when I eat around people I don't know, or men. I still worry a bit about how I look eating, like they'll think I'm too fat to eat. The reason it's mostly eating around men that bothers me is that men have been the ones who primarily commented on my weight and eating. It's one of those personal issues that I'm working on along with everything else. It's better now, I don't freak out every time I sit down at a restaurant, convinced everyone will be staring. I don't always have to eat the lowest fat thing I can find, or only eat a few mouthfuls and then hide the rest to look like I've eaten more.

Maybe most importantly: I trust myself around food now in a way I hadn't for over a decade. I know my diet is healthy and diverse now. I know I make healthy food choices for the most part. I also know that occasionally making the choice to have something like french fries does not make me a bad person. Balanced eating is not about never having a food for emotional reasons, never eating fried food or sweets. It's basically taking the word "never" out of your food vocabulary, along with not associating what you eat with whether or not you're a good person. It's about not judging what I eat along limited and rigid lines. We do that a lot in the U.S., making foods morally good or bad. Which then means the people who eat or don't eat them are good or bad, and whatever body type gets associated with those "bad" foods likewise become "bad". It's actually pretty vicious when you think about it.

So, I've gained weight. That's a tough thing for me to say. Some of it is from actually eating and some of it is from reducing the amount of exercising I was doing because I had stopped being able to do it for anything even remotely resembling health or enjoyment. It was all obsession, all about judging and punishing myself. I couldn't go for a walk without obsessing about how far it was, and if it was anything less than an hour, it was like I hadn't done it. I would do it while sick, I would hurt myself by pushing too hard, pulling muscles, putting my back out. I almost collapsed doing back to back intense aerobics one afternoon for nearly 2 hours in 90+ degree heat. And it wasn't enough. I didn't "feel" thin or healthy or "good". I felt like a failure.

Mind you, I think I've gone a little far in the other direction. But that's okay. We all go through more or less active times. Now that I've moved to San Francisco I'm more inclined to walk/bike/skate for enjoyment and find that balance between exercising legitimately for health and because I like to...than because I think I have to or else I'm a terrible person who doesn't deserve kindness or love. That's not very healthy, physically or psychologically.

It's difficult for me, still, to think of my weight gain in terms of both my mental and physical health. Both are, in fact, much better. But that "thin = good" thing is really hard to get past, especially when you're a woman. And that's not all of it, either. I feel guilty that I want to lose weight, because I feel like I'm being shallow. And, of course, I worry that if I get too far in that direction I'll be right back at starvation and thousands of jumping jacks in the middle of the night.

When so much of how I used to identify myself was based on starving and attempting to shrink myself away...it's tough to be okay with taking up more physical space in a very real sense. My body fat is not imaginary. My belly is soft and round and when I sit there are noticeable rolls. My upper arms, never particularly slim, are full and round as well. And there is a voice that asks, in my head: Am I fat?

The truth is, I don't know, and it shouldn't matter... but it does...in that dark place inside me that still hangs on and tries to claw its way back to running my life. My perception of myself is still very distorted, which I remind myself of every time that voice starts raising a fuss. And I remind myself that I'm more than my weight, and that I'm so much healthier now it's scary. I have proof from my doctors on that one. But still. That doubt lingers.

Will it ever go away? I don't know. I'll have to be watchful and diligent and keep talking to myself even when it feels silly or selfish. I've done so many things I never thought I would in the last 2 years that I can't ignore the connection between dealing with ED and being overwhelmingly more productive. That's something I could not stand to lose, the things I've accomplished, the work I've done. And in the end, those achievements are real and more worthwhile than starving myself to be thin ever was.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

I "Feel" Fat Part 1: Fat is not a Feeling

When I was 17 years old, after about four years of nightmarish bullying, depressing social isolation, and a traumatic family death, I discovered that I could solve all my problems by not eating. Instead of feeling hurt, depressed, angry, or sad...I could just feel blissfully empty. I could pour every unhappy feeling into an obsessive cycle of emptiness, exercise, and hating myself. It was the solution to problems I felt overwhelmed, trapped, and consumed by. And it was also the solution to being told I was fat and disgusting every day for the better part of two years. I was so horrified with myself, so afraid of being called names, that denying myself what I needed to live seemed like a fair trade.

This cycle of self-loathing and starvation continued for the next 13 years. My weight fluctuated up and down depending on whether my sense of self-preservation kicked in enough to force me to eat sometimes. Which I always hated and resented and felt guilty about. A good girl should be able to survive on a yogurt and apple a day. But I was never good enough, and I never "felt" thin. Since I never stopped menstruating and did not get down to an extreme "enough" weight, I guess I would fall into the EDNOS category of eating disorders. That is: Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified. This is generally reserved for people who think and act in the same patterns as those with anorexia and bulimia, but don't quite meet all the criteria. Which usually means that you've been able to successfully fool people into thinking you're not ill by not looking obviously sick on the outside. Inside, you're still really fucked up, but you haven't quite hit bottom. Maybe you aren't self-hating enough, maybe someone in your life keeps you in check without knowing it.

Or maybe you're just really, really, really lucky. By some miracle I never lost enough weight to "look" sick, unless you were paying very close attention. Which almost no one was. Mostly because thin = good and no one really cares how you get there so long as you don't mess up and actually look ill. It was especially easy in college when I was commuting to school and was just "saving money" by not eating and walking 40-60 blocks in NYC, then another few miles at night. Which were then followed by a thousand jumping jacks and hundreds of sit ups. I had a set number of distances and exercises I had to do in order to feel like it was okay to eat something. And it increased all the time.

I want to make this clear: exercise is not a bad thing. I like walking and biking and roller skating when I'm able to just view them as "fun". And many people can work out for hours and be completely healthy mentally. I was not. Because I was not doing it because I liked it or wanted to be healthy, I was doing it because I was "morbidly" and obsessively terrified of being fat. If I missed a day of exercise I would be miserable, consider myself a failure, and emotionally wreck myself for my lack of discipline. And then I would starve myself for days to "make up for it". That's not a healthy way of being fit.

This is the distinction that I think people misunderstand when someone is talking about being mentally ill with an eating disorder. Your way of thinking is distorted. It's not normal or balanced and things that other people do just because they like to are often torturous, self-abusing cycles of hate when you have an ED mindset. You don't view food, exercise, or your body's relationship to them in any normal way. You can't.

Also, the "morbid fear of fatness" that is one of the markers of an eating disorder can manifest in a lot of different ways. For me personally, I judge myself by a set an impossible standards I have never expected any one else to ever meet. I do not find fat people disgusting, I find myself and only myself disgusting for having body fat. I can't speak for anyone else with an ED, but I'm only obsessive about and judgmental of my own weight. I honestly don't judge other people's bodies, maybe especially when it comes to thinness and fatness. I cannot imagine subjecting other people to the way I think about myself. That, among many other things, was one of the most important breakthroughs I had when I finally realized I needed real help.

I sought out therapy a few months before I turned 30. It was one in a series of decisions to make real changes in my life. My partner and I moved cross country, which was a huge adjustment. I was freelance for the first time and it was extremely challenging. Moving to the West Coast from the East Coast was a much bigger culture shock than I had expected and I was really depressed for a few months. Sometime during that I realized that I was slipping into more extreme eating and exercising habits again because I was working from home. And because I was stressed, sad, lonely, and didn't really know how to express those feelings anymore except by burying them in restriction and starvation.

For me, feeling empty was the cornerstone of my ED. It was the feeling I sought out, craved, and in some ways became addicted to. Being so hungry I felt sick and then, as if by magic, it would shift and become almost euphoric. This blissful hollowness. It was a consuming emptiness that shut out feeling most anything else. And it meant I was being "good". By that point everything was divided into very stark lines of what it meant to be good or bad...but I rarely ever felt I was "good". In any way. Whether it was creatively, intellectually, or physically...if it involved me, it was ultimately "bad". Wrong. Awful.

I'm not entirely sure what made me realize that I couldn't go on like that anymore. Maybe it was because, for the first time, I was really able to see how stunted my own work had become. I'd fallen into that trap of believing that depression and self-loathing were where my creative impulses came from. I'm pleased to say that while they sometimes are, most of the time they aren't. In fact, I'd say I'm much more creative and productive when I'm not feeling like shit about myself. That was a revelation. But at the time I was having trouble making anything work and I wasn't able to finish projects I started, whether it was a painting or a story. And that scared me because art and writing had always been a place I could go to, to get out of myself. They were the one thing I felt like I could count on and apparently they'd been starved to death.

The first few months of therapy involved a lot of crying, a lot of personal revelations, and a lot of challenging exercises to reshape the way I think about myself.

One of the first things I had to do was write down my emotions throughout the day. I thought this would be easy. I'm an artist, I am very sensitive, I have a lot of feelings! So I wrote down "I feel fat."My therapist kindly but firmly said "Fat is not a feeling. What are you actually feeling when you say that? What does that mean to you? What do you associate with that word?"

I think that question and the subsequent exploration of my actual emotions are, without exaggeration, where my life changed. Once I started articulating the actual feelings I was having, the tangled web of self-loathing judgments, impossible expectations, anger, sadness, and just years of feeling like I had to remind myself that I was a worthless nothing every day...oof. Getting at those was hard and involved a lot of dissolving into tears that wouldn't stop, and days that felt like things were getting worse. Mostly because I had shoved those feelings so far down I'd forgotten what it was to actually experience them. What I had to relearn was that feeling was a good thing, even when it was a "bad" feeling. Because acknowledging it and dealing with it took away its power. Instead of feeling terrible for weeks, if I just let myself be angry and hurt when I was angry and hurt...it didn't have the same hold over me. And when I "felt fat" I would sit down and ask...what are you really feeling? What's actually going on here?

Being able to ask and now answer that question has allowed me to do things I never thought I would. Creatively, I've been anything but blocked and stagnant. I've become more assertive and much more proactive now that every second isn't dedicated to telling myself I should never want anything, that I will never accomplish anything, that I should just not eat because if I'm not starving and thin I'm a terrible failure.

I want to be clear: I still have really bad days. The sort where all I want to do is sleep and hate everything I'm doing and myself in the process. But I've come to understand those days better, and the reason they don't become weeks (or frankly, years) is because I don't judge myself for having them like I used to. Feeling like shit and then judging yourself for having that feeling is a cycle of self-loathing that will consume your life. It'll eat everything you are and strangle anything you want to be.

I have learned and am still learning how to be kinder to myself. It's not easy. Sometimes it feels indulgent, like I'm some hippie Special Snowflake type, obsessed with telling myself I'm good enough and smart enough. But more of the time I'm able to talk to myself the way I would a friend who was struggling with something. Because I'd never tell a friend they were a worthless failure for gaining weight or feeling discouraged. And I have to ask myself: why is it okay to tell myself those things? What will happen if I, I don't know, don't do that? If maybe I'm encouraging and remind myself that my expectations are generally impossible for me to meet, so I should perhaps take them down a notch and be a little more realistic? Will the world collapse? Will I become an ego-maniacal nightmare the instant I'm not reminding myself that I'm terrible and awful at everything? So far, no catastrophic personality changes have occurred. The world is going about its business as it always does, without worrying about me at all.

It may sound strange that realizing that nothing is going to blow up if I don't hate myself was a big deal, but it was an important moment for me. The fear of being a terrible person was something I used to justify everything from my ED to shutting myself off from most people. Not feeling like that all the time has, for obvious reasons, made life a lot more fun. And it's been a relief to re-discover myself. I'm as capable of being ridiculous and goofy as I am being serious and sad. I'm becoming more of a whole person, where my flaws are not insurmountable, but just aspects of who I am.

I have no idea if I'll ever feel really "normal" about my body or food. I just know that I don't find starvation and self-loathing to be much of a solution anymore. Which is scary. But in that good way.

Next up: I "Feel" Fat Part 2: When Weight Gain IS Being Healthy, But You Still Hate It

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Body Meat

i have a face
bones, teeth, hair
i wear my skin the most
it folds, begins to wrinkle
and weighs my belly down
these are my parts
my body meat
cut up and on display
what is a leg worth?
a breast? a cunt?
would you wear my skin
sliced thin and delicate
peeled fresh, and pink, and white?
or would it rot
left out for dead
a carcass for
the beauty beasts and
picked clean by starving girls

Sick Sweet

sugar sweet
i tongue it
the lies of teeth and
tears
am i kind
when
i swallow
am i sweet
when
i cry and scream
from the hollow
places i keep silent
wearing my lying smile
sick sweet and
biting down
the bitter temper
with sugar teeth and
rotten skin

The Seed of Worry

It plants itself
deep inside my brain
it roots, twisting
sending tendrils into
dreams, days, years
it cracks, shoots, sprouts
from out my skull
aching behind my eyes
branching, growing, gnawing
at the insides of my heart
the seed of worry
becomes a tree of doubt